Sessue Hayakawa: The First Japanese Hollywood Heartthrob

When you think of silent films, Charlie Chaplin, Rudolph Valentino, and Gloria Swanson might come to mind. But did you know that there was also a debonair Japanese silent film actor who made women swoon at the mere sight of him?

Sessue Hayakawa (1889–1973), also known as Hayakawa Sesshū, was one of the biggest stars in Hollywood during the silent film era of the 1910s and 1920s. He is considered the first actor of Asian descent to find stardom as one of Hollywood’s leading men. Sessue Hayakawa not only conquered the hearts of women in the United States but in Europe as well. His broodingly handsome good looks were perfect to play the role of the sexually dominant villain, a role in which he was typecasted.

Sessue (pronounced Sesshū) Hayakawa was born Kintarō Hayakawa to a family of means in the village of Nanaura, now part of Chikura Town in the city of Minamibosō in Chiba Prefecture, Japan.  He was the second eldest son of the prominent provincial governor.

Sessue Hayakawa

From an early age, Sessue was expected to become an officer in the navy, but while a student at the Naval Academy in Etajima, he swam to the bottom of a lagoon on a dare and ruptured his eardrum. The injury caused him to fail the navy physical. This brought his father shame and embarrassment and caused a wedge in their relationship. Young Hayakawa attempted seppuku by stabbing himself more than 30 times in his abdomen in a shed in their property. The family dog’s barking alerted Hayakawa’s parents to the scene and his father used an axe to break down the shed’s door, saving his life. After he recovered, he was sent to study political economics at the University of Chicago to become a banker.

Hayakawa decided to quit his studies at the university and return to Japan after his second year. He first traveled to Los Angeles and waited for a transpacific steamship. During his stay in L.A., he discovered the Japanese Theatre in Little Tokyo and fell in love with acting and performing in plays.  Here Hayakawa met the influential film producer Thomas H. Ince and the Japanese actress, Tsuru Aoki. Ince cast both Aoki and Hayakawa in his Japan-themed films, and in 1914 the two young actors married and became one of Hollywood’s golden couples.

Cecil B. DeMille’s blockbuster film, The Cheat, made Hayakawa an international star. The 1915 film was a huge success most likely because it touched on interracial intimacy. During those years, Hayakawa was as well-known and popular as Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks, although today his name is largely unknown to the public.

Though many of his films are lost, most of his later works such as The Bridge on the River Kwai, The Geisha Boy, The Swiss Family Robinson, Tokyo Joe and Three Came Home are available on DVD. For his contribution to the motion picture industry, Sessue Hayakawa was awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

The Cheat 1915 movie poster